New Women’s Voices Series: Finishing Line Press 2013
“Three words emerge like a chant in Kitsune, Jessamyn Smyth’s extraordinary collection of poems: flame, sweetness, yes. Follow Smyth through these ashes, taste honey on the other side. Follow her with a yes that beats out of your ribcage. This is her gift to readers, the gift of her brutally beautiful “animal heart.” To read Kitsune is to follow a warrior woman through the wilderness, only to end up balanced on the tip of her spear.”
- Elizabeth Eslami, author of Bone Worship: A Novel
“If anything remains with us of the human-animal divide, Jessamyn Smyth’s Kitsune abolishes it at a bound. These poems inhabit the real, impossible ground where spirit and viscera entwine, embrace and rip asunder. Her words deliver their own best evidence of the “ferocity and intent; fire-like focus” that make this testimony of possession “consuming and dangerous exactly as you hope such things will be…” I have never encountered a more vivid, sustained, and profoundly lived-through literary work.”
Eric Darton, author of Free City, Orogene, Divided We Stand: A Biography of the World Trade Center, and Notes of a New York Son
“In Kitsune, Jessamyn Smyth writes about “something very like love/but harder to escape.” …Thank goodness for these poems, which guide us out of the worst kind of hurt and lead us toward what we really might need.”
- Camille Dungy, author of Smith Blue and Suck on the Marrow
First readers respond:
These are all so achingly beautiful. I can wrap myself in them and let them reflect or embody my own losses and hopes. The book has an icy heat, like a chisel splitting frozen wood, a glowing fire in an iron stove. Be warned: you can’t read a naked thing fully dressed.
- Nora Streed
I made many, many doubling-backs over the especially exquisite and shattering parts, which is to say: just about all of it. It’s devastating. Completely ripped me up like almost nothing ever does. Yanked me from the get-go, and still has me in some kind of spell. It just spoke to me so immediately, all of it, speaking straight from marrow and cell so raw and real and muscular. Left my own emotional synapses in tangles. And sobbing.
- Michael Clark
I love how Smyth played with the kitsune myth and turned it into something new/different. There’s a neat interplay between the slightly oblique vs. the personal; it speaks to random, total strangers in a beyond-useful way. It’s compelling. Hits the sweet spot in a way that resonates.
- Beth Lowe
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“The poems have in common not only their theme of a romance figured forth as a mythic possession, but also their shape from classical Greek drama…presenting in strong and lyrical lines the plaint of the fox’s baffled victim, when she describes in the poem ‘Unshakeable’ “something very like love/but harder to escape.”
Occasionally we are offered also the fox’s own perspective on human love, which is as strange and ultimately inaccessible to him as he is to his victim.
These poems tend to complicate the mythic dynamic of the possessor and possessed.
I cannot think of another work quite like Ms. Smyth’s, embracing both the cerebral and the emotional, fastidiously observing both what is within and without.
In a world inundated with every manner of verse, it is a book worth reading.”
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A very kind “I finished this chapbook and promptly died of jealousy” post on Tiny Cat Pants!
“…reminded me of The Pillow Book. Like there’s a kind of detached framing and then each poem kind of plunges you right into a dramatic, emotional moment.
It’s so good. Can I just quote you a lovely part?
everything, everything for me has conspired
to make of me a person of no
and by sheer vexed stubbornness I am determined
to continually say yes, yes, come closer, yes
Christ, it’s all that matters
–somehow it’s the language of everyday, but slightly skewered.”
Missed this one at the time, somehow – I love seeing how people respond to it.
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Lori Desrosiers, editor of Naugatuck River Review, asked me some wonderful questions about the wee book, coming out soon now from Finishing Line Press’ New Women’s Voices Series (May 31st!).
Many thanks to Lori for her unflagging celebrations of poets and poetry, and for being one of the first to publish from this collection: “Letting Go of a Man at the Montague Book Mill” first appeared in NRR, and the journal also nominated the poem for a Pushcart Prize.
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Finishing Line Press New Women’s Voices chapbook competition top ten
Advance copy / prepublication sales: Feb. 18 – Mar. 27
Release date: May 31, 2013
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“Next Big Thing” speed-interview from Maggie Cleveland (Atom Fish)
Where did the inspiration for the book come from?
A kitsune is the Japanese iteration of a trickster fox spirit found in storytelling and myth traditions around the world. Depending on context and culture, it is sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes human-shaped, sometimes fox-shaped, sometimes a shape-shifter, always extremely seductive, and eternally, insatiably hungry.
Some of the tales are enlightenment sagas (leading to the 9-tailed fox who personifies wisdom and is associated with Inari, for example), but in the smaller-scale folktales of daily lived experience, kitsune shows up as a lover who possesses some hapless human, seeking sustenance. The stories are tragic, usually ending badly for both possessed and possessor, neither of whom acted from malice: the human’s heart is broken by the shape-shifting nature of the beloved, and the fox-spirit’s hunger can never be satisfied.
I got interested in merging the archetype of kitsune with the structure of Greek tragedy as a way of opening up the symbols and language of a catastrophic love affair.
It is my belief that tragedy—both Classical and personal—inheres in the fact that character does not, in fact, change. For all that we can change specific behaviors for the better, and effect social change, and can and must and should invest in these ethical ways of being in the world, our fundamental individual natures do not actually change no matter how many weekend workshops we attend. This is, of course, an heretical view in a self-help culture, but to me, self-help culture simply illustrates how we have domesticated and commodified the notion of “change” beyond all possibility of real use. In a sense we are stuck with ourselves, even as we are solely responsible for our own behavior as adults: we are simultaneously powerful and existentially bound. This generates enormously interesting conflict.
The structure of Classical Greek tragedy—the parados/choral entrance song, the episodes, the stasimons/choral commentaries, the exodus-kommos/choral exit and lament—offered the right emotional conveyance.
The trickster fox lover offered playfulness, intensity, ravenous hunger, uncomplicated dog-like qualities complicated by shape-shifting trickster ones, the opportunity to play with inversions and subversions of who is shape-shifting and tricking and ravening at any given moment, ferocity, sleek fur, sharp teeth, and the color orange.
Kitsune is one of a trilogy of short collections: the other two (in progress), Raven and Coyote, will come together with it to make a longer collection with a current working title of “Tricksters Make Inconstant Lovers.” Or maybe “Trickster Love.” Or “Beware the Trickster.” Or just “Trick or Treat?”
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The manuscript came together in pieces over a period of several months; in January of 2012, I shaped and revised it, with feedback from first readers; in February I sent it out to Finishing Line. I have been known to sit on manuscripts for years, so for me that was extremely prompt.
What other books would you compare this story to?
Comparisons are tricky: for all that they are intended to attract, they can also repel or circumscribe a reader’s expectations, unintentionally making an experience of a book smaller instead of larger. Some books do resonate in similar ways, though, even if at the level of language they are quite different. To me, Kitsune might be in the emotional neighborhood of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Fires. But each reader might also answer that question very differently, and I want them to.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Tricksters. Ravening. Tragedy.
Oh wait, that’s three sentences.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The story these poems tell required visceral, skinless presence and overt sensuality. In oblique ways, I think my writing always has that: strong location in place, the body, the senses. Kitsune demanded being much more direct about the sexual dimension of the human animal than I usually am, though.
Writing sexuality of any mood—never mind an emotionally complex mythic possession—can be hazardous in any number of ways. It’s such a subjective human experience, and so often completely unexamined, that writing directly about sex can easily end up being not only anti-erotic, but unintentionally funny, clichéd, bodice-rippy, soft-focus-maudlin, or any number of other deeply untruthful and tiresome things.
People also carry peculiar baggage about sex, and project it aggressively and constantly, especially onto women. So women writing about sex get different reactions than men do: stentorian condemnation, conflation of the writer with the text and/or a sense of entitlement to the writer herself, professional threat, damned if you do/damned if you don’t, that sort of thing. We’re not past any of that.
And yet, sexuality is this powerful language and force and bounty in our lives, and sometimes it is an essential part of the only true way to tell a particular story.
In my personal life, my sovereignty is in privacy. In my writing life, there can be no armor. That means following the story to some hazardous places.
What genre does your book fall under?
Short answer: poetry. All my work lives at crossroads, though, as that’s where I find the most interesting travelers.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Hooch very sweetly sent a headshot. I do think he would offer a sensitive rendition of the fox-spirit, but he might have trouble fitting into the costume.
Where is your book available & who published it?
Kitsune won a place in the New Women’s Voices Series competition at Finishing Line Press. You can pre-order it now, here.
Ship date/release is May 31st, 2013.
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The cover art is in, and it’s beautiful.
Made for me by herpetologist/artist/musician Mark Mandica, whose work is extraordinary and wide-ranging: from scientific illustration to iconic logos.
So happy to have Mark’s art on the book!